By Daniel Hubbard | August 9, 2010
So many years ago that I don’t quite remember where this took place, I was in an art museum with a friend or two and we came across a strange family portrait. I happened to know why it was so strange and so I got a chance to play tour guide, if only for one painting. It was one of those moments that sticks in one’s mind. I was lucky to have just read about that kind of painting and, as I talked, a small crowd formed and listened. Far be it from me to give an art lecture but for a brief moment, a few strangers decided that it was worth their time to stop and listen.
Genealogy plus Anthropology
As genealogists, we always hope for that one document that will clearly tell us what it is that we want to know. It could be a birth date, a parent’s name, the identity of a missing sibling. Often we find that magic bullet but it is usually not so easy. It would almost be a shame if it was. Instead we put together hints and arrange them until they tell us what we want to know, or prove that we are on the wrong track. We make use of odd bits of cultural context to turn seemingly unimportant facts into the information we need.
When first learning genealogy, one will eventually come across something like this—a John son of Robert and Mary was recorded as being born seven years after a John son of Robert and Mary. Without knowing the cultural context it is hard to know what to do with these facts. You need to be a bit of an anthropologist. You might assume that there were two different couples with the same names that you were confusing. Perhaps you would just record the second John in the same family as the first as another son of those same parents. Maybe you would decide that there was only one John and that there was some confusion about when he was born. Depending on other factors like culture any of those might be most likely to be along the right track. Often the culturally appropriate assumption is that the first John was dead and his parents reused his name. Not something most people would do today. To us it feels on the verge of taboo.
Back to the Art Museum
So, what was it that I was explaining in the art museum? It was something else that has the taste of taboo. Something that today seems alien. My memory of that particular painting is perhaps somewhat faded but in that family portrait were a mother and father and their children, all posed in their family library. One son was facing away from the viewer, caught in the act of fetching a book. A daughter seemed oddly faded, almost transparent and in front of the mother was a baby with pale grayish skin. These children were not there to be painted with their parents, they were beyond the eyes of any painter. They were dead. That painting was a genealogical document in a way that family portraits occasionally once were. It was, in a way, the death certificates for those children and evidence that the culture that prevailed then was different from ours. The daughter was probably added from a likeness made in life. The artist probably had no image of the son to work from and so the son had to be made to face away. The baby was probably just a generic baby, resembling the dead child only by virtue of being very young.
We might not always be aware of how different the cultures that we deal with actually are from our own. After all, these people were our ancestors and somehow their culture was one of the ancestors of our own. So we get lulled into a false sense of security and believe we understand them. Then there is a danger that though we might understand the words they wrote, we won’t understand what they actually meant. Assuming similarity can cause us to miss things. Rejecting possibilities simply because they seem strange to use can cause mistakes.
There were living children in that painting and in other paintings like it. Children who might have left descendants. What would it be like to be one of those descendants and have a painting like that be one of your family documents? Would it be understood?
For us that family portrait is alien and macabre, interesting yet disturbing. I find myself asking how people who could cherish a painting like that, could have lived with the same folkways as my forebears. What parent today would want spectral children and deathly gray babies to inhabit their family portrait? Looking at that genealogically fascinating painting, requires not just a genealogist’s eyes but an anthropologist’s as well. It was painted in an age when losing children was far from unusual and so in a way it is not surprising that parents saw death differently. For those parents, it was a way of cementing memory, of preserving the family that should have been, and of honoring the dead. Perhaps it was even a way of allowing their living children to grow up with their departed siblings. It begins to make sense when seen from the inside.
Culture matters.Twitter It!